Youth has always been a double-edged sword for America's presidents. It tends to inject the White House with fresh ideas and energy, but it can also lead to impetuousness and a disregard for the tried and true. So far, Barack Obama has demonstrated both the positive and the negative sides of the equation. As the nation's fifth-youngest chief executive—he turned 48 on August 4—he is both innovative and vigorous, but at the same time he is unseasoned and perhaps too willing to experiment and take big risks.
Over the years, America's youngest presidents have had mixed records. Only one—Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest chief executive in history, who took office in 1901 at the age of 42 years and 10 months—qualifies to be in the great or near-great categories, according to historians. Roosevelt's age was a joking matter even for his friends and advisers because he seemed so preposterously young. Secretary of War Elihu Root told him on his 46th birthday in 1904: "You have made a very good start in life, and your friends have great hopes for you when you grow up." At that point, he had been commander in chief for three years.
Rounding out the youngest five were John F. Kennedy, who was 43 years and 7 months old when he was inaugurated; Bill Clinton at 46 years and 5 months; Ulysses S. Grant at 46 years and 10 months; and Obama at 47 years and 5 months.
Kennedy still has a hold on the popular imagination as a young leader whose potential was cut short by assassination. The reputations of Clinton and Grant were marred by scandal. Obama, in office less than a year, has yet to make a definitive mark.
"Ideally, what you get from a young president is seeing beyond the status quo," says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton. He adds: "Youth creates a level of freshness—someone who will look at ideas in a different way and who is not confined to old, stale answers to problems." And a young president often is seen as having an advantage in stamina and emotional energy that can help in tackling problems that older leaders wouldn't touch. Today, for example, Zelizer says that Obama is attempting to get beyond the decades-old debates of baby boomers on Vietnam, abortion, civil rights, and other issues as he tries to usher in a new era of activist government and deal with long-term issues such as stimulating the economy and overhauling the healthcare system. Of course, with less than a year on the job, it remains to be seen how effective he will be.
"On the negative side," Zelizer says, "inexperience is a problem." A young president inevitably requires on-the-job training. Although he was reluctant to admit it publicly, President Kennedy understood this dynamic. "Presumably," Kennedy confided to a friend, "I was going to learn these lessons sometime, and maybe better sooner than later." Adds Zelizer: "Experience matters—you can't get around it. People who've gone into battle before are more ready for the next battle."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway says that youth has its advantages in the eyes of the public. "Youth connotes energy, freshness, the future," and a sense of optimism, she says. And for many voters, "older" suggests staleness, being out of touch, and putting political calculations above doing what's right. But if a president doesn't deliver results relatively quickly, the disadvantage of inexperience could rapidly overcome the advantages of youth in the public's mind, Conway says. That may be where Obama is headed if he doesn't manage to win passage for healthcare legislation, start reducing the unemployment rate, which is at 10 percent, and find honorable and practical strategies for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
More broadly, the history of America's five youngest presidents offers both inspiration and cause for concern.
To fully examine the effect of youth on the presidency, U.S. News Chief White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh will take an in-depth look at the five youngest presidents in U.S. history. First, read about Theodore Roosevelt's history-making presidency. Tomorrow, read about John F. Kennedy. An installment of this series will run every day this week.